A Bounded Freedom

As someone who is called to serve the Church in an ordained capacity, I have been giving some thought to how we can best respond to this calling, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?

 

It seems that these endless weeks of bounded freedom, the only name I can think to give to this period of lockdown, are drawing to a close – for the time being at least.

There will have been days which literally defy description and there will be have been others which have passed like a dream, with day and night merging into a single colourless continuum. We have been thrown back on ourselves and on our own emotional resources. For many people, these resources are now at a very low ebb. Our faith, if we have one, may have been severely tested through depression or loneliness, through disorientation and a strange sense of uprootedness and disorientation, perhaps.

Faith is nurtured through relationship, through human exchange at every level. For Christians it is also nurtured through coming together to seek God on a weekly basis, with whatever words and actions we are given, or that have been handed to us by tradition. Despite everything that is being done online, some of us miss our Sundays, the day that punctuates the week in this rather formal way. We miss our church and its regular pattern of worship and ministry. We miss the communion of it, communion through the sacrament if we have that, and communion with one another at a very real level, real in the sense of being physically present to one another in a shared space that has been used for this purpose for generations.

Church is a place of rootedness. But people are mistaken when they think of church as a sterile environment stuck in the past. If roots are simply ‘stuck’ a plant or tree cannot live. Similarly, if prayer and worship are no more than habit, if it is emotionally stuck or out of touch with people’s lives today, it will not be a channel of life. But if prayer is genuine, if it consists of everything a person has to bring to the moment, worship will be genuine too. It will also be rooted, not boring, repetitive or trite, but sourced in the unchanging nature of God and rooted in the richness of our individual lives.

God does not change and yet God moves, within us and around us. Churches exist to signal this particular reality that we experience together. In the context of a church service, we are present to God from what can only be described as our real self, the place of no pretence where we meet the God who knows us and loves us as we are.  We are also among people we trust, or at least we should be. The purpose of church is to affirm and celebrate this rootedness in God and in one another, to celebrate a trust between people that has accumulated across the generations and throughout the centuries and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

The other name for this is communion, the communion of ‘saints’. Saints are not perfectly holy individuals. They are flawed human beings, past and present, who recognise their need for Christ and try to love one another in that place of need. Some of them will come together on a Sunday and do this in church.

The responsibility for celebrating this communion, or union of people at the deepest level of meaning in God, lies with those who minister the church service. They can be ordained or lay, depending on the tradition of individual churches. Either way, it is a particular calling and one which extends beyond the confines of any one parish or church building.

As someone who is called to serve the Church in this way, I have been giving some thought to how those of us who share in this calling can best respond to it, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?

I am getting a sense of what this might be from the relationships that have been formed or strengthened up and down the lane where I live. It is more than a sense of people looking out for each other, or being more friendly than usual – notably when it comes to negotiating one or other of the few passing places we have along this lane. We smile and make eye contact with the person who gives way, which is not something that always happened in the past. Courtesy is very much part of our shared life these days. We are not in such a hurry as we were. There is deeper communion between us as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic.

Being in deeper communion with one’s immediate neighbours, as a result of our shared experience of lockdown, says something about what it means to be the Church. We are in fact being the Church when we practice courtesy to one another. But there is more to it than that. For the Church, courtesy is a graced action. It comes from having spent time engaging with the source of all courtesy and kindness, with engaging deeply in God. The isolation and solitude of the past months have meant that many of us have had to re-learn the habit of dropping down into silence in a way that sees silence as the source of all goodness, and of life itself. There have even been times, during these months, when silence literally ‘commands’ our attention.

To pay attention is to respond to a command from God to listen deeply to the world and to our immediate surroundings. It invites us to draw people we know into the presence of God, from within our own deepening encounter with silence and with whatever we wrestle with in moments of real solitude. But we also do this in solidarity with our neighbours, naming the ones we know, or simply holding the ones whose names elude us in the ambit of God’s love. This is what the Church of the future will consist of, a body of people who have learned how to hold others in God.

Despite lockdown, some figures suggest that there has been a marked increase in interest in Sunday church services over the past weeks. On one particular Sunday the internet briefly collapsed under the sheer weight of Christian prayer, teaching and worship. This is interesting because there are many parish clergy who have felt lost and disorientated over these past months, despite some of the wonderfully imaginative outreach that has been effected through the internet and despite the pastoral sensitivity and vision of some of our bishops. It has been a wilderness time for them.

The Church, like many people, is enduring a wilderness period, not only because its doors have been closed, and may remain so for a while yet, or because collective worship has not been possible, but because we are being invited, perhaps, to deepen into this sense of loss and absence, into the wilderness, and, what is more difficult, to not be in too much of a hurry to emerge from it.

As with lockdown itself, I believe we clergy need to emerge slowly and cautiously from the wilderness we may have been experiencing. We need to own it fully. Owning our own wilderness enables us to minister in the fullest sense to the emptiness and loss which many people experience in their lives, irrespective of Covid. These feelings of loss can be attributed to specific crises, of course, but for the most part they constitute a general state of mind, a sense of purposelessness and futility, a lethargy of the soul. If the Church, and its ordained ministers in particular, are to speak to this soul sickness, and thereby proclaim the good news of the Gospel, those of us who do so in an official capacity will need to re-learn acceptance, acceptance of who and what we are before God (and that takes some doing) and acceptance of the world and the Church itself, as they are before God. In the eyes of God, both the Church and the world are fundamentally good and deeply loved.

Herein lies the paradox of the Church’s prophetic vocation. We are to know ourselves as loved by God, and capable of goodness, while at the same time being acutely conscious of the evil and suffering that is perpetrated in the world and within the Church’s own bounded structures. Holding these two opposites together, the capacity for good and evil, becomes a way of life, not just something we do when we feel up to it, or can find the time, but as the guiding knowledge that we are called to live by.

We also do it in solidarity with previous generations. We inherit both the good and the consequences of the evil that may have begun through their actions, in both the Church and the world. We are in solidarity with the BLM movement now, because injustice and racism continue, but we also bear the burden of slavery itself which, lest we forget, continues, as people are trafficked all over the world into various forms of modern enslavement. We carry the burdens of previous generations, and of our own, but we do all this from within a place of inner silence which is not closed in on itself, but open to the possibilities of redemption and of forgiveness. We do it from a place of knowing that all that we are holding is held in God, as we ourselves are held.

Those called to the ordained ministry will need to have learned to know themselves from within that silence and see it as their ‘default position’, the place or ‘locus’ of understanding to which they continually return in order to rightly understand and live out their calling as deacons, priests and bishops in God’s Church. Lockdown may have helped some of them begin to face the realities of this calling, the seeming loss of direction and purpose, the irrelevance of status and ‘job description’, and of pointless and energy sapping meetings and committees. Without this time-consuming activity, some of them will be feeling marginalised, even redundant. They may even be questioning their calling. This is hardly surprising, since these very skills were probably being sought for when they were first selected, and subsequently trained, for ordination.

But the good news is, that much of what we clergy have become accustomed to, and even comfortable with, is not God’s idea of what it means to be the Church. In fact, without all these distractions from our true vocation, during these wilderness months, the Church’s life is only now just beginning. We can be confident then, that as long as we love one another and God’s world from within that often lonely and silent place, and work together for healing, as the apostle Paul wrote to the clergy in Corinth, we ‘do not accept the grace of God in vain, for now’ he says ‘is the acceptable time; See, now is the day of salvation.’ (2 Cor. 6:3)

 

 

 

Life’s Purpose

 

 

With lockdown now into its eleventh week (longer if, like some of us, you went into self-isolation the minute the alarm bells sounded) I’m beginning to wonder if this is what the ‘new normal’ really looks like. For those whose businesses have folded, who have no familiar routine to return to, or who find themselves prematurely retired, getting out of bed in the morning may be the biggest challenge they will face in the ‘new normal’ day. Despite the long weeks of lockdown, nobody is prepared for this sense of purposelessness and for the depression that comes with it.

The shock of the new, if it is new at all, returns us to the age old problem of solitude and loneliness, of purposelessness. But perhaps we also misunderstand the nature of purpose, when it comes to what our lives are for or about. St. Paul, in his letter to the fledgling church in Rome, writes that God works all things to the good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28) It seems that love, calling and purpose are very closely related. They are bound up in each other.

That, you may say, is all very well for those who have the time to ponder these things, whose thoughts and concerns are not taken up with how to pay the rent and feed their children, once the furlough money stops and their wages with it. And yet there is a connection between loving God and the harsh realities that many people will face post-lockdown. I think it has to do with our ability to somehow anchor our fears and uncertainties in a deep conviction about the transforming possibilities of love.

Every now and then we see these possibilities arising in the most unlikely contexts, in the angry confrontations that we are witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, and in the way they oblige us to confront our complicity in what can only be described as the historic sins of slavery, racism and all forms of prejudice. Where we confront prejudice in ourselves, we must turn and seek forgiveness from those we distrust and at the same time fear, because prejudice and fear belong together. But the hardest thing is not the seeking of forgiveness. It is the acceptance of it.

Accepting another’s forgiveness obliges us to open our hearts to those we have wronged, and who we now fear, and then to keep them open. It obliges us to go on accepting love. We have seen small instances of this happening. Riot police taking a knee before protestors and the gentle acceptance of love and forgiveness that follows. Black people refusing to hate white people. The walls of hostility come down, momentarily perhaps, but also irreversibly. Hope replaces despair. Somewhere in all this the loving purposes of God are at work.

The Christian Church is called to embody the loving purposes of God. But it cannot do this unless it re-connects with its own humanity, unless it thinks of itself not as an organisation, or an institution, but as a vulnerable body of human beings called to live out God’s purposes for the world. The Church defines itself as the body of Christ to the extent that it knows itself to be a people whom God loves and who love God. Where there is indifference to God, there is also indifference to the suffering of other human beings. So, for Christians, the living out of God’s purpose begins with self questioning, first in regard to whether we love God and, secondly, in the extent to which others feel our love for God in the way we think of them, speak of them, and act towards them.

All of this returns us to the acceptance of forgiveness which is at the heart of the Christian faith. Accepting that we are forgiven, keeping our hearts open to this often painful reality, disposes us to love others as Christ loves us. We still have time, before the end of lockdown, to decide whether we want to live our lives in the knowledge of this world transforming reality.

Liberal Values In An Illiberal Age

 

Liberals have something very valuable at the heart of their political conviction for which they often pay a price. The word ‘liberal’ embodies both freedom and generosity so that, theologically, it is bound up with the very nature of God, with God’s love and mercy. I am a liberal in the context of both Church and society because I believe that the liberal vision for a just society and a just Church is closely bound to these two essentially divine attributes.

This liberal conviction is also part of the conviction of faith. The conviction of faith depends not on certainties, but on the humility that comes with an implicit trust in the deeper truth which makes the love of God a reality in people’s lives, a truth which embodies kindness. Kindness is what liberal Christians ought to be holding to as they try to help others reflect on the increasingly complex moral questions that face our high tech, money orientated world and society. It is also why some view them with suspicion. People like certainty in politics and they like it in religion, so those who suggest that less certainty is conducive to moral and religious health are perceived as a threat.

In the Church, as in society, liberals have been accused of being neutral, of ‘wishy washiness’, of having no real theology, of sacrificing integrity for the sake of a spurious unity, and even of cowardice. Many, if not all of these accusations are the result of the over-politicised, issue-driven and somewhat lazy mindset which drives the individual politically and which also drives the politics of the Church. Particular mindsets, or to put it more bluntly, prejudices, give a person a political identity, also affording them with (providing it can be squared with other prejudices) a party identity. For those liberals who see truth as bound up with God’s love and mercy, and therefore inherently dynamic and of the Spirit, the difficulty lies in defining the truths which make us fully human, rather than trying to pin them down so that we can identify with them and identify with like-minded people, or with a political party.

But truth is not to be confined in this way. Rather, it must allow for the freedom and generosity which speaks of true liberality. For liberals, the search for truth is an ongoing struggle for a deeper understanding of what is truly good. Christians engage in this struggle in the knowledge that God wrestles with us as we seek solutions to the questions which will inevitably accompany such a search. God wrestles, as we all do, with righteousness and truth as it pertains to the world today – or, put more simply, as it pertains to the question ‘What is the right thing to do in this situation?’ What is most conducive to the common good, to God’s overarching love being worked into the life of any one person in any one context – abortion, for example? or with the way we are as a nation among other nations – Brexit, for the UK, and the politics of immigration both in the UK and the US?

All of these questions, and their contexts, point to the variegated nature of truth, and hence to the near impossibility of providing a single answer to those which pertain to morality and to how a nation sees itself as one among many. At the same time, Donald Trump’s spurious policies are an all too painful reminder of what can happen when we do not pay serious attention to what those in power are doing with the power handed to them in regard to what is righteous and truthful and in the interest of the common good.

In the UK we are also being taught some salutary lessons in taking responsibility for the common good as we watch the disintegration of the Conservative party where the common good, along with truth and righteousness, are easily traded for the gratification of personal political ambition. And while Rome burns the party in opposition watches and waits – silently. This is the worst form of pragmatism. Why is the party of the opposition not opposing? Possibly because its leader wants to keep his options open for later, should he find himself running the country in the near future. But he is doing himself a great disservice politically. Many of those who might have voted for him feel disillusioned by his lack of what the poet Yeats would have called ‘conviction’ at a time when the country so badly needs to hear his voice. Although I would not bracket the leader of the Labour party with Donald Trump when it comes to integrity and righteous thinking, both, to a greater or lesser extent, remind us that weak men in positions of power are dangerous in the longer term.

Liberal theology, and all liberal thinking, needs to be true to itself by not shirking the questions which are asked of it and by seeking to address those questions in new and challenging ways, ways which will enable others to connect with the love of God. This is something Modern Church tries to do each year as we reflect theologically at our conferences. Our annual conferences remind us of the privilege and responsibilities which come with being a liberal voice for the Church and for the Christian faith. Liberalism, as we see it being worked out in the context of Modern Church, involves a kind of quiet passion for a religion which is capable of bringing hope where it is most needed – in the realm of ideas which are capable of shaping the policies of both Church and world into something that speaks of the kindness of God.

In both these areas, liberalism is neither heterodox or ‘fuzzy’, but it does threaten to disturb. It dislodges us from familiar habits of mind, because there is something deep and alive driving its life.

 

 

The Emperor Has No Clothes

The ‘nones’ (those who, when responding to surveys, tick ‘none’ in the box marked ‘religion’ but who might possibly tick C of E if pressed) need look no further for a home. Bishop David Jenkins, that prophet of our time, once was heard to declare that God is not interested in the Church. God is all about the Kingdom.

It follows that if and when we stumble upon the Kingdom in the context of the Church, we do not need to look further to find God. The problem lies in defining the Kingdom, if such a thing is definable. You could say the same thing about the Church. It is not easy to describe what the Church is, still less what it ought to be, if it is to be true to its Kingdom calling.

The original commission to go out and make disciples has acquired a rather hollow tone, given the Church’s history of conquest and forced conversion, not to mention prejudice and plain hatred. But the kernel of truth remains at the heart of its true calling. If the Church is called to be anything at all, it is called to offer to the world the peace which only God can bring, the peace of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church is called to embody that peace. Peace is its garment, and peace is the substance of its members, the body it clothes. The Church is called to give that body to the world, as Christ gave his.

The Church cannot simply talk about peace in rather abstract terms overlaid with the clothing of piety. We need to tend the hurt body lest we be accused, like the Emperor who failed to realise that he had no clothes, of being completely naked.

The build-up of hurt, the collective betrayals, untruths and resistance to the goodness and giftedness in people, and its resistance to healing, make it difficult for the Church to truly embody peace. As with any physical body, allowing wounds to fester can render them life threatening. Could it be that this is what is happening in the life of the institutional Church? We keep knocking each other’s old wounds without pausing to consider the damage. We are more concerned with filling our churches and with preventing them from falling into disrepair than we are about healing the hurts which we inflict on ourselves.

At the more traditional end of the Church, we hide complacently behind beautiful but arcane (in the minds of many) liturgy, clerical dress and the kind of managerialism which consists mainly of moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. At the other end lies a mixture of naïveté and hubris, a blinkered reading of scripture which often goes with an implicit sense of superiority in regard to other faiths, or even other Christians. Neither of these scenarios provides a setting in which the ‘nones’ are likely to meet God in his Christ.

What is needed is for the Church to take ‘time out’, a couple of years’ sabbatical perhaps, on order to focus prayerfully and pastorally on its relationships, especially on those which relate to authority and to the pastoral care of its people, clergy and laity alike. During this sabbatical, those with the most power and authority would be subject to those with the least. In the current hierarchical and still patriarchal system, such a reversal of order could help to break down existing power blocks and help us all identify where true authority lies. So it is those with authority and power who must begin this re-structuring work of peace-making in the Church, because peace-making is both the mandate and the sign of true leadership.

Peace-making in the Churcb will entail the hard practical work of seeking forgiveness and the bridge-building which will follow. It will be hard because it will first require that everything that is not of love be burned away. Love must do the burning. This, incidentally, comes as close as it gets to a definition of hell. The fire of hell is the burning fire of love. Hell is hell insofar as it is the conflagration of consuming love, love burning up all the petty hatreds of life in community.

But the institutional Church as we know it is not all bad news. There are acts of heroic self giving which pass unnoticed in its life. Priests who minister in and for the love of Christ, and whose work is largely ignored by the Church’s critics, embody the healing fires of love. Their work endures in the hearts of those whose lives they have touched. Bishops who are true to their calling as peace-makers and as pastors to their clergy do the same. It will, nevertheless, take time for the Church to be transformed in such a way as to make the ‘nones’ want to tick a different box, but I am convinced that it will happen. Such is the nature of the faith we proclaim, that we will be changed ‘in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye’.